President Obama and the advocates for increased federal gun control are coming to the end of their big Easter recess effort to build support for a tougher background check bill, and the results don’t look promising. Obama returned Thursday from a Western trip that included a stop in Colorado, where he reminded listeners of the Aurora and Columbine killings. Obama applauded Colorado’s recent gun control legislation, which he said showed “that practical progress is possible by enacting tougher background checks that won’t infringe on the rights of responsible gun owners.” On Monday, he heads to Connecticut where he will make his closing arguments.
But Democratic sources tell TIME that the tough background check bill that emerged from the Judiciary Committee March 12, doesn’t appear to have the votes to overcome a filibuster when it comes to the Senate floor in the next week or two, let alone get through the Republican controlled House. The push by Obama and his allies, including a $12 million ad buy by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appears only to have highlighted the fact that any bill that includes paper records for all private sales can’t pass Congress.
Perhaps the greatest sign that the push for tougher legislation has failed is that Democrats are quietly preparing a fall back position. Behind the scenes staffers for Republican Senator Tom Coburn and Democrat Charles Schumer are drafting a substitute background check bill that would be softer, but could get broad Republican support. “Lines of communication remain open and both sides are working in good faith to come to an agreement,” says one source close to the deal.
The substitute bill is not yet done—the sticking point remains whether there will be a requirement for paper records of background checks on private sales at gun shows or elsewhere. Coburn says Republicans won’t accept any expansion of record keeping to private sales, even though paper records are required for guns sold by licensed dealers. Gun control advocates say that not including a paper record of a private gun sale makes the expanded background check requirement for gun shows and other private sales toothless. The bill incorporates other compromises already agreed to, like exempting holders of concealed-carry permits and intra-family gun transfers from the checks, and other measures.
Barring a dramatic turnaround, the Democrats now face a choice of either walking away from any expanded background check or accepting one without paper records of private sales. Some gun control groups are pushing Democrats to walk away. But the White House appears to be softening its tone. “What the president wants to sign is the strongest gun bill he can sign,” White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer said Thursday at a function of the website, Politico. “What we have to make sure is that whatever we do is better than current law,” Pfeiffer said.
It’s not surprising the President is in a mood to deal. Not only has he not built support for the tougher bill favored by Democrats. Now the NRA is pushing against even the modest measures that previously were a lock, including an expansion of penalties for gun trafficking. Earlier this week, the NRA circulated language that would gut that part of the gun control package. At this point, Obama and Schumer look ready to take the best deal they can get, which seems to be the one Tom Coburn is offering.